WHEELING - Rep. David B. McKinley's renewed legislation seeking to put states, not the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in charge of regulating coal ash cleared the House Thursday with bipartisan support.
The vote was 265-155, with 39 Democrats joining all but seven House Republicans in voting yes. Only two GOP members opposed the legislation, while five did not vote. All West Virginia and Ohio representatives voted for the bill, which had 54 co-sponsors.
The fight against federal regulation of coal ash - a byproduct of coal burning and a common ingredient in many construction materials - has been a focal point for McKinley since his election to the House in 2010. Two previous attempts to curb the EPA's authority over the substance have failed, once as a stand-alone bill in 2011 that passed the House but was never considered by the Senate, and again last summer as an amendment to a federal transportation bill.
"This issue isn't going to go away," McKinley, R-W.Va., said following Thursday's vote on House Resolution 2218 - the Coal Residuals and Reuse Management Act of 2013. "It's just wrong for us to be arguing about this for 33 years."
McKinley called the new bill "a classic manifestation of compromise" that strengthens safeguards against groundwater contamination, but prevents the EPA from classifying coal ash as hazardous waste and allows individual states to implement policies concerning the material that work for them.
"We listened to so many people when we put this together, and one of the salient issues that people were concerned about was human health and the environment," he said.
McKinley believes the current bill would do much more to address those concerns than his 2011 legislation. It subjects all coal ash impoundments to a permitting process, and requires groundwater monitoring at all structures that receive the material.
"If they detect a leak, they will have to correct that leak. If they don't, it's very simple - they will have to shut that facility down ... no ifs, ands or buts. There are no exceptions on this," he said.
The bill also includes a provision by which the EPA can enforce those safeguards if state regulatory agencies aren't doing their job - but not before consulting with those agencies and proving their permitting requirements are deficient through a defined process, according to McKinley.
"It won't be subjective," he said. "This is something they will have to follow."
McKinley believes this version of the bill has a much greater chance of success in the Democrat-controlled Senate than the 2011 version.
"The president has not threatened to veto this bill, so I'm very comfortable that we've reached the level of conversation that we needed to have. ... This is a piece of legislation that he thinks he can work with," McKinley said.
Coal ash, also commonly called fly ash, is recycled for use in construction materials such as concrete, asphalt and wallboard. Regulating it as hazardous waste, McKinley argues, would unnecessarily increase construction costs and threaten tens of thousands of jobs in the recycling industry.
Removing the "stigma" of a hazardous waste classification could even encourage efforts to find new ways to recycle fly ash and lessen the need for impoundments to dispose of the material, he believes.
"Keep in mind, not one industrialized nation in the world treats fly ash as a hazardous material. ... As long as we burn coal, we get fly ash," McKinley said. "The question is how we want to deal with it."